Intolerance: Disturbing News Images Discussed

There's a very cool moment in a Robert Wagner movie where he's being accused of consorting with one of the bad guys. A photograph is produced. Wagner looks at it with sceptical disdain before throwing it back to his accuser. 'Give me a few hours in a lab and I could have you busting fortune cookies with Chairman Mao'. Photographs - real or faked - have been not so much in the news as the substance of the news over the last couple of weeks. It's a reminder how central 'news' images are to our culture and how completely they railroad everyday scepticism to become iconic images of a historical event or period. It was Ted Kennedy who said, not without a little of his usual rhetorical exaggeration, that the overseas image of America was no longer "Miss Liberty", but a hooded man standing on a box connected to wires. It's not as easy as Robert Wagner said to fake photographs convincingly. Think of those weirdly constructed shots of Lee Harvey Oswald, holding a rifle and carrying a Communist newspaper. Does the shadow under his nose match the shadows on the ground? Why is he standing at a tilt? Why does he look nothing like the chunky 'Oswald' who turned up at the American Embassy in Havana? The Kennedy assassination made America paranoid (in the literal sense of seeing patterns that aren't there) about photographs. There are shadows on the knoll that might be snipers, faces at windows that might be spotters. Get into that mind-set and very quickly you lose not so much the ability to spot a technical fake, but the ability to read a photographic image sceptically and in context. The British 'torture' photographs look 'wrong'. They're too static, the kit's wrong, you don't turn your face away on a souvenir shot, the pee doesn't look real: so maybe they're fakes in a second sense, staged shots rather than lab artefacts. Interestingly, the family of the young reservist shown in the US American photographs have defended her by saying that the snaps of her torturing and degrading prisoners aren't real, but 'posed', leaving aside the question why you'd want to pose such a picture in the first place. Half of the great wartime photographs, indeed half the iconic images which appear time and again in histories of photography, were posed. Cartier-Bresson, Doisneau, Weegee, all of them set up shots and did so without apology. One of the most famous war images of all, Robert Capa's sunlit shot of a republican soldier at the moment of death, spinning from the bullet's impact, was very probably staged; there is another, no longer seen version of the same image: different soldier, identical pose. Does that suggest a fake? It certainly should. There is a third, more problematic category here. Real, untouched photographs, not posed, but used out of context. In the First World War, images of German soldiers leading away a group of women were used as evidence of rape, when it seems likely the women were merely being evacuated. The reality of an image is only completed by its caption and byline, which is why there is nothing more subversive and unsettling than an uncaptioned photograph. Take any half dozen of the most famous news images of the last decade and then imagine some amnesiac scenario which strips them of their context and associations. In the case of the hooded man, even the absence of immediate context would still leave a cultural residue. We see him as victim, possibly martyr, denatured and anonymous, a potent but unspecific symbol of inhumanity. Add some insignia, or an identifying landmark, and the associations jump into a different kind of focus. The point of all this is that news images are dangerous because they don't announce themselves with any consistency and are disturbingly easy to manipulate. Nothing new in that, except that it's a symptom of a wider malaise. We've become a visually "unsceptical" culture. We believe what we see, or rather we believe what we've been told we're seeing. The camera lies by omission; we lie by choice.
Amazon has great books on Robert Capa's photographs, on Weegee's photographs,on Doisneau, and on Henri Cartier-Bresson.
"The camera never lies -- but we do.", Brian Morton, The Scotsman, 2004-05-11


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Brilliant photos! Thanks!

5/22/2004 08:56:00 am  

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